Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Glenn Beck Works

I'm not all that interested in spending a lot of time using contemporary notions of argumentation theory to analyze a figure like Glenn Beck, who by all accounts exists in order to demonstrate that the possibility of using something like a typical rubric to "grade" his performance will be a task forever in search of anything more than a failing grade. Clearly, Beck is not interested in completing arguments in a way that would make Stephen Toulmin deliver something like the worlds driest golf clap. And I want to say, the left is no great shakes in this regard at all times (Kos and certain contributors to the Huffington Post, I'm looking in your direction). But to ignore him seems risky, given that plenty of arguments that don't supply premises and work off an affective force have done lots of naughty (and good!) work in the realm of politics.

So, surprise surprise, Beck operates like a conspiracy theorist. No earthshaking revelation there. But he is not just a conspiracy theorist--he is a victimized one. Today's episode, which focused on unions, was a great example through and through. Beck opens the show by tearing into labor unions for being exclusive and power hungry organizations. He then quite carefully notes that he is mostly targeting the leaders of the labor unions, as those are the one who are most likely to be communists and power hungry (he easily conflates these two perspectives together in a way that's easy to follow for anyone who understands either Jonah Goldberg's fascism enthymeme or the history of any number of leftist regimes in the 20th century as a proper tale of the failure of socialism).

Beck dedicates the entire show to unions. First he does some armchair labor history, tracing the relationship of unionization to two negatively valenced phenomena--race and violence. He traces the terrible history of racial exclusion that underlied the rather protectionist sentiments espoused by labor unions (he's particularly fond of people from 1877 in this regard). And indeed, not much to argue with--plenty of unions did plenty of incredibly racist things, especially to the Chinese to name just one example that Beck really likes. Beck also shows some classic American art and renderings of labor struggles from the late 19th century, mentioning the death and destruction that accompanied the agitation of these workers.

What makes Beck's theories run is that he does not provide the viewer any pause as he talks to consider the important question of "whose" violence and racism. His performance stipulates very limited and conventional (we might say conservative, in the Richard Weaver sense) understandings of these phenomena. Take, for example, his argument about the racism of the labor union. He's not wrong--but it would be nice to see him square the brutal rhetoric he aims at the labor unions with the fawning and love he directs towards America generally, a country whose history of racism, even conservatively defined, is damning at worst and troubling at best. Surely slavery is not a lesser offense than a labor unions attempt to disrupt the workdays of Chinese cooleys. What's more, labor unions are non-governmental organizations. The history of private discrimination in this country is extensive as well-yet Beck seizes on unions. Again, unions did racist things. Then again, so did basically most every institution in America at one point or the other. Beck's selection of the union as the site to articuate his arguments about race tell us something interesting.

So to do his claims that the danger of unions is that they risk violence. His descriptions of the violence wrought by unions rely on the abilities of image to short circuit the capacity for rational argumentation in an engaged audience--he shows some renderings of beatings and riots and then says, to paraphrase "unions caused this violence, violence!" never mentioning that quite often the victims of the violence were union members themselves who were beaten to death by strikebreakers hired by such non-union friendly folks as Henry Frick. In this was Beck produces the violence of the time as an illegitimate effect of the labor union's agitation, pushing aside the content of the claims made by the laborers in favor of an outcome based assessment that delegitimates their efforts.

Both his major points about racism and violence fold into the last part of the show where he makes the claim that contemporary labor unions in America are actually shadow organizations for the great stalking horse of "multiculturalism", that hegemonic formation of difference that seems to know at every step just how to destroy white privilege, and, by the commutative property of crypto-fascist Fox news shows, America. In this movement Beck's argument shows its savvy because it produces an injured America as the victim of the same history of labor movement racism. Rather than understanding labor unions as organizations bent on helping people get a fair share of what they produce, labor unions are power hungry organization's whose somewhat naive belief in th fatuous notion of "equality" empowers them to assert the necessity of giving in to "other" people to the point that the current status quo will one day be unrecognizable. So the history of the labor union's racism is not just some bizarre enthymeme but rather carefully and quietly encourages the audience to read what movements are doing today as another form of exclusion rather than equality. Of course, what Beck needs the audience to insert is the notion that something like "Americanness" exists in the status quo, that is properly rewards hard work, and that it is a bedrock of stability and goodness. Audiences, of course, do a good job of inserting these premises, as 1994 and the year of the Angry White Male do a good job of demonstrating.

It is also true that "multiculturalism", as a movement, must not include white people for the argument to work. So rather than allowing for the possibility that "white" is one category included under the multicultural umbrella, Beck's argument demands that multiculturalism operate in an exclusive and dichotomous relationship with whiteness--we are presented with a forced choice--one or the other. References to socialism, Marxism, the socially conscientious work of Piven and Cloward, and violence all act to implicitly prop up this argument--after all, we defeated socialism/Marxism in 1989, and we do politics rather than allow violence to exist in our public sphere. These references produce multiculturalism as an antagonistic and threatening formation rather than as something which is potentially inclusive and consistent with democratic aims.

So we have Glenn Beck (no accident that he often cries and wails, with much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments) here making arguments to protect American values from a dangerous socialist multiculturalism embodied in labor unions. These unions are out to make America into a victim--to derail its greatness by levelling of all people under the "benign" sign of equality, which, in Beck's formulation, is dangerous because, to quote nearly verbatim "people are not equal. Get used to it!" He then rattles off a number of jobs where the workers make more money than most of his audience members. He does not, of course, mention his own. It is, however, at this moment that I found Beck his most persuasive--because he anticipated a potential counter to his argument, and then responded preemptively (everyone is not equal!). At least he is honest about his exceptionalism in this instance. What he ignores is that unions typically don't claim that they will make everyone fabulously rich--they generally agitate for living wages, reasonable increases in standards of living, and measures that make something beyond mere subsistence (but not radical luxury) obtainable.

Forms of privilege repeatedly exist because people declare that the reality that we inhabit is a reality not structured by forms of power and luck but instead is a reality that is the product of some sort of invisible hand that produces certain life situations as proper indexes of the worth of certain humans. For Beck's argument to work, the place where multiculturalism and labor unions want to take us must be unnatural, a zone where the distortion of "real value" is so great that we would find ourselves not free to realize our own dreams and potentials but instead subjugated to values that demand we conform to external impositions of what is right and wrong. This assumes that where we are now is also not the product of such a power relation, and the arguments of Beck (and his Tea Party bretheren) often strain so hard to make this point that it becomes easier to think that the strength and conviction of their position derives not from a certain sort of metaphysical correctness, but rather from a deep seated anxiety that the idea of "America" which they are protecting is something that is fleeting, if it ever existed at all.


  1. Actually, Gordon and I were talking this week about how it might be helpful to have a really nuts-and-bolts article on Beck's argumentation strategies, and you just wrote a chunk of that article. :-)

  2. yea man,i'm into writing about these folks and I think it would be easy. let me know if you want to cobble something together...